Friday, February 24, 2012

The Year of Living Dangerously

Based on Christopher Koch’s 1978 novel of the same name, The Year of Living Dangerously (1983) was among a small group of films that came out in the early 1980’s depicting the struggles of Western journalists to document the plight of Third World nations – Under Fire (1983) in Nicaragua; The Killing Fields (1984) was set in Cambodia; and a few years later Salvador (1986) came out with an unflinching portrayal of the volatile conditions in El Salvador. The Year of Living Dangerously is set in Indonesia during the attempted coup of President Sukarno by the 30 September Movement Communist party in 1965 and follows a group of foreign correspondents in Jakarta covering the increasing unrest.

The film’s title is a quote that refers to a famous Italian phrase used by Sukarno – vivere pericolosamente, meaning “living dangerously.” He borrowed the line for the title of his Indonesian Independence Day speech of 1964. Sukarno was a hero for leading his country’s independence from the Netherlands. He became the first President of Indonesia and during his reign he gave each year a name. In his 1964 speech he named the upcoming year “the year of living dangerously,” as if anticipating the increasing friction between two radical political forces: the Communists and the Muslims, both of whom were trying to overthrow his government. Sukarno also planned to cut his country’s ties with the West.

We meet Australian journalist Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) as he arrives in Jakarta on his first foreign correspondent assignment to find that his predecessor has already left without briefing him. He leaves the airport and we are immediately assaulted with the sights and sounds of the chaotic city – streets congested with cars, people and livestock – but he quickly moves through it to an air-conditioned hotel where all the western journalists hang out. It is there that he meets Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt), a freelance photographer that did a lot of work for Guy’s predecessor. He takes Guy on a guided tour of the slums of Jakarta to show him how most of the country lives and to gain his confidence. Billy also does this so that Guy doesn’t see the country like other journalists, namely Pete Curtis (Michael Murphy), a correspondent for the Washington Post.

The next day, Guy tries to get an interview with Sukarno and is easily rebuffed by the President’s staff. Later on, Billy proposes a deal: he’ll use his personal contacts to get Guy an interview with the leader of the Indonesian Communist Party if he can be his exclusive photographer. Guy’s interview with the Communist Party leader earns grudging respect from his fellow journalists and an initial flush of jealousy from Curtis who had been trying to get the same interview for months. The Post journalist doesn’t like the Indonesian people. They are there just for his amusement. Jakarta is just another assignment for him and Michael Murphy is not afraid to play up the unlikable aspects (of which there are many) of Curtis.

Director Peter Weir is careful to make the distinction between Guy and Curtis (and the other seasoned journalists) and how the former looks at the way the latter delights in the humiliation of the locals with disgust. Guy is young enough not be jaded like Curtis and Billy recognizes this, which is why he latches onto Guy. Billy believes that he can influence Guy to write articles that tell the real story of the Indonesian people and perhaps make a difference. For example, there’s an intensely visceral scene where Billy and Guy cover a protest outside the American embassy by the Communist Party. What starts off as a peaceful march quickly turns ugly as the protestors throw rocks with Billy and Guy stuck in the middle of the angry mob. Once their car gets surrounded, you really start to fear for their lives as the danger they’re in is palpable. Weir does a good job conveying their peril by showing the chaotic masses swirling around their car.

Billy introduces Guy to Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), the assistant to the British military attaché, and who plans to leave for London in three weeks. Her introduction provides occasional moments of levity, like when she, Billy and Guy attend a house party and everyone dances to Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On.” We see the initial attraction between Jill and Guy emerges through the looks they occasionally give each other. The next day, she drops by his office looking for Billy and he offers to drive her to the photographer’s place and wait for him. Jill is very much Guy’s intellectual equal, good-naturedly criticizing one of his articles as being too melodramatic. She ends up accompanying him on an assignment and at one point they end up getting caught in the rain. He charms her with his willingness to look silly and make her laugh. They share a brief, meaningful look that shows how their attraction towards one another is growing. There is a loose, improvisational feel to this scene as it really seems like the actors are in the moment, which only enhances the chemistry between their characters.

Weir never lets the love story overshadow the political one as Guy finds out from Jill that the Communists are planning to overthrow Sukarno’s government and he tries to figure out how they’re going to get weapons into the country. She told him in confidence and he plans to use it in his article, which, of course, puts a strain on their relationship. Even though I know how the film ends, every time I watch it I still get caught up in the tension of Guy’s race to escape the country as it descends into chaos. Weir ratchets up the pressure so that it is almost tangible and you really fear for Guy’s life.

The carved images that appear over the film’s opening credits depict mythical Indonesian figures: Prince Arjuna, the hero who is “fickle and selfish”; the “noble and proud, yet headstrong” Princess Srikandi; and Semar, the dwarf who serves the prince. These figures nicely foreshadow the film’s three main characters: Guy is the fickle and selfish hero, Jill is the noble yet headstrong princess and Billy is the dwarf that serves the prince.

Made early on in his career, Mel Gibson is well-cast as Guy Hamilton, a young journalist on his first big assignment. The actor manages to portray someone who is smart but inexperienced – a basically decent guy that makes mistakes but tries to do the right thing. Over the course of the film we watch as Guy learns on the job and also falls in love with someone probably for the first time. Gibson wisely doesn’t play his character as a wide-eyed innocent – just someone who hasn’t seen much of the world. He isn’t afraid to play a flawed character and still find admirable qualities within him – perhaps even a hint of redemption.

Sigourney Weaver probably wouldn’t be your first choice to play a British woman but she quickly makes you forget that and focus on her behavior and how she carries herself. Weaver is one of those rare actresses that can convey intelligence while being an undeniable beauty. Jill knows that what she’s doing probably won’t last but is compelled by her emotions to get involved with Guy anyway. Weaver is also able to effortlessly convey a complex range of emotions simply through facial expressions, like when Jill wanders through a marketplace in the rain and it looks like she’s contemplating her relationship with Guy and we see how it impacts her, motivating what she does in the next scene. Jill has a complicated relationship with Guy that is brought together by political conflict and is also threatened by it.

The chemistry between Gibson and Weaver is incredible as they do a fantastic job of depicting a brief, yet intense love affair amidst a volatile situation. Weir develops Jill and Guy’s relationship gradually and realistically. They don’t automatically fall in love but get to know each other by hanging out. It’s a classic scenario of a doomed relationship that can’t last but they go for it anyway because the attraction between them is undeniable. You feel the want and desire between them in the way they look at each other and through their body language. The country’s volatility can create a kind of vulnerability between two people and this is the case with Jill and Guy. They are brought together by the volatility of the situation. The two of them know that they have very little time to be together but can’t deny their intense attraction to each other.

Linda Hunt is simply astonishing as Billy Kwan, the savvy photographer who cares deeply for his fellow countrymen. He believes in helping whomever he can, even if it is a toy for a sick child or a bit of money for someone who is starving. Through his voiceover narration, we find out that he is quite a good writer, documenting the plight of his people as well as Guy’s story. Hunt disappears completely into the role. She plays Billy as a tragic figure, a romantic who wears his heart on his sleeve. Perhaps he cares too much, or, rather not enough people around him care as passionately about making a difference as he does. The scene where Billy loses it after being betrayed by Guy is powerful and painful as we sense all the hurt and frustration bubbling up to the surface as the photographer commits a final, desperate act. Your heart really goes out to Billy and Hunt is so good at conveying her character’s last attempt to make a difference.

A friend of director Peter Weir’s recommended he read Christopher Koch’s novel The Year of Living Dangerously but its political content held no interest form him and he delayed reading it for months. Weir finally did read it and was so taken with what Koch had written that he immediately bought the film rights. Weir was particularly impressed with the character of Billy Kwan and felt that he was the heart of the novel, “the figure around whom the novel is constructed.” The director was already intrigued by Indonesia as his favorite vacation spot was Bali: “I had in my mind all the smells and sounds of an Indonesian street or market, the mysteries there had always appealed to me.”

Weir co-wrote the screenplay with Koch and David Williamson, an acclaimed Australian playwright who had worked with the director previously on Gallipoli (1981). While working on it, Weir began to appreciate the story’s politics for the first time: “I began to see how the political atmosphere is acting upon the characters, and how the larger politics and the politics of the personal are inextricably locked together.” He was also careful to achieve a balance and it took many drafts to achieve it. Weir admitted to having a “bumpy” relationship with Koch because he told the author he was going to “attempt to make this into a good film. He took that for doubt or uncertainty on my part, whereas it was really just being honest.”

The Year of Living Dangerously was in development when Weir got the offer to make Gallipoli and so the project was put aside while he did that one. While making Gallipoli with Mel Gibson, Weir knew that he wanted to cast him in his next film. After they made a deal for The Year of Living Dangerously, Mad Max (1979) came out and Gibson became an international movie star. After casting Sigourney Weaver, it took months for Weir to find someone to play the pivotal role of Billy Kwan.

Three weeks before principal photography was to begin, he had still not found the right actor. He was shown a photograph of Linda Hunt and was struck by her face which he thought looked like an “elf or a goblin.” Weir agreed to meet her and after doing a screen test of her in Eurasian makeup and men’s clothes, he decided to cast her in the role: “My feeling was that it was worth the gamble.” She was “scared to death” at the notion of playing a man but found herself drawn to the character and his relationship to the people of Indonesia and “to his passion about injustice.” Her initial worry was that she could not do it and no one would believe it. Hunt even admitted that during filming she was terrified 95% of the time. To transform herself into the role, her tropical shirts were padded slightly across the shoulders to give her a wider back and she always had something in the breast pocket.

Gibson and Weaver had very different working methods but they didn’t break the ice until the rain scene in the car. For the sequence, they were drenched by fire hoses with the car portion shot in Sydney on a very cold night. Gibson said about his romantic scenes with Weaver, “That kind of thing is always a touchy area with actors, I would think. Or maybe it’s just me. But I think we managed to get a few sparks going.” Weir was more worried about these scenes then the violent crowd scenes that employed thousands of extras. Gibson remembered, “We unloaded truckloads of rocks and things and told those young blokes, ‘Hurl these rocks through the windows. We’ll be down here with the cameras.’ You could yell, ‘Cut! Cut!’ but it didn’t stop the fight.”

Due to the controversial politics of the film, Weir did not consider filming in Indonesia and instead picked the Philippines. However, the production ran into trouble there. Four weeks into a scheduled six weeks of filming in the spring of 1982, the cast and crew began receiving written and telephoned death threats from Muslim extremists that feared the film would be anti-Muslim. Airing on the side of caution, the production left the country and finished filming in Sydney, Australia. At the time, Gibson downplayed these threats: "It wasn't really that bad. We got a lot of death threats to be sure, but I just assumed that when there are so many, it must mean nothing is really going to happen. I mean, if they meant to kill us, why send a note?"

The Year of Living Dangerously received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it four out of four stars and called it, “a wonderfully complex film about personalities more than events, and we really share the feeling of living in that place, at that time.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby praised Linda Hunt’s performance: “Not exactly dominating these performances, but providing the film with its dramatic center, is Miss Hunt's haunted Billy Kwan, who keeps detailed files on everyone he loves, weeps at the purity of the voice of Kiri Te Kanawa and, when the chips are down, is capable of the film's single grand gesture.” However, the Washington Post’s Gary Arnold wrote, “It's unlikely that anyone who sees The Year of Living Dangerously will ever forget Hunt's performance or Weir's orchestration of a foreboding atmosphere. Still, there's no particular reason why these marvelous aspects couldn't be coordinated with the story in an organic way, so that Billy's character, the characters of the lovers and the ominous intimations all paid off in coherent dramatic terms.” Newsweek found the film to be “an annoying failure because it fritters away so many rich opportunities.”

Along with The Road Warrior (1981), The Year of Living Dangerously helped launch Gibson’s international career and it wasn’t long before Hollywood came calling. It also showed that he had some serious dramatic acting chops and wasn’t just some hunky pretty boy. Weaver’s career also got a big boost and it was the beginning of a great run during the ‘80s that saw her move effortlessly from comedies like Ghostbusters (1984) to dramatic fare like Gorillas in the Mist (1988). The Year of Living Dangerously also helped launch Weir’s career and like Gibson he soon started making films in Hollywood but managed to make them on his own terms with thought-provoking efforts like The Mosquito Coast (1986) and Fearless (1993).

At one point in The Year of Living Dangerously, Billy says, “What then must we do?” This is also the question that the film asks not only of its protagonist but also of its audience. Don’t waste the rest of your life asking this question – do something. It’s all fine and good to become interested in important causes but will you step up and take an active role in something you believe in? Weir avoids delivering a preachy, statement-driven film by expertly balancing a love story with political unrest in a foreign land and how they become intertwined. He makes the politics personal by showing how they impact the characters. It all comes back to Billy’s rather poignant question – “What then must we do?”


Moore, Peter S. "The Year of Living Dangerously." Moviegoer. February 1983.


  1. Wonderful exposition of a film that remains under appreciated. Loved what Weir accomplished with the film and cast. It's still amazes me that the studio has done little with disc releases. No Blu-ray as yet, domestic or foreign. Gotta hope someone comes to their senses with this beautiful gem. Well done. Thanks, J.D.

  2. I like politically charged films like this one, they sometimes get me all bitter because they show how evil political leaders are. You mentioned Salvador which is one such film...Raul Julia's Romero is also amazing. I dont know if you've seen John Boorman's Beyond Rangoon (1995) but it sounds like it has some similarities with this one, highly recommend it man, it's very political, but very human as well, a very moving film. I couldnt believe how involved I got with that one!

  3. Like TFC, I really enjoyed Romero and Beyond Rangoon. What a solid couple of films. Great performances by Raul Julia and Patricia Arquette.

    Now, J.D., loved your coverage here of another classic by both Peter Weir and Mel Gibson. I have been waiting to see this one on Blu-Ray.

    Anyway, how fortuitous you would write this fine entry with all that is transpiring in Syria with the death of Marie Colvin and others. Your timing was no doubt unintended.

    As you so rightly put it, Gibson, Weaver and Kwan are amazing. And they do have impeccable chemistry. What a terrifically cast film. And funny how I have always found Weaver, a very unexpected choice, as incredibly attractive all these years. She plays that up perfectly in Galaxy Quest.

    And, as you mentioned, Hunt is amazing. She's always a strong addition to any film, like your fine review on The Relic. The casting of Hunt was indeed crucuial to the Year film.

    In general, I think Ebert got the film's style and approach right especially when you consider the work of Weir.

    He is very layered in his approach to these journeys and makes these mesmerizing films that are wonderfully complex. I'm surprised some people had a problem with the film. I think it has a lot of substance and holds up to repeat viewings. It's a very rewarding piece of cinematic history and a great picture.

    Weir does it again with Fearless and he has done some other marvelous work with The Truman Show and Witness, as you know, for starters!

    Great look at an underappreciated film! SFF

  4. le0pard13:

    Thanks, my friend!

    I agree with you that in the baffling absence of this film on Blu-Ray and any kind of special edition. This title is screaming for the deluxe Criterion Collection treatment!

    Nice to see that you are a fan of this film as well.

    The Film Connoisseur:

    Good call on ROMERO! That is a fantastic film with an amazing performance by Raul Julia. I had forgotten about that one. I admit that I haven't seen BEYOND RANGOON. I think when it first came out I was put off by Patricia Arquette being in it as she can be a bit of a lightweight actor but it is directed by Boorman so maybe I should give it a shot.

    As always, thanks for stopping by.

    The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    So, you recommend BEYOND RANGOON also, eh? Hmm...

    And yes, my timing with Syria and the death of Marie Colvin was unintended. Weird how that happens sometimes.

    I agree with you about Weaver. Loved her in GALAXY QUEST. And, of course, so good in GHOSTBUSTERS and willing to play the comedic villain in WORKING GIRL. She has quite an impressive range as an actress.

    Agreed with you on Hunt. You just can't see anybody else in that role. She did an amazing job and rightly won the Academy Award that year.

    I also agree that the film holds up to repeated viewings. There's a lot going on in this film and I find it incredibly compelling - it never fails to suck me in every time I watch it.

    Thank you for your wonderful comments!

  5. Wrote a review for Beyond Rangoon, check it out, you'll get an idea of how good it is, I was blown away by it, it gets so tense, and Arquette did a great job if you ask me, might possibly be one of her best performances! Highly recommend it, that film is so underrated!